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Hospital delays: ‘Lives at risk’ as crisis over waiting lists goes from bad to worse
Soaring waiting lists have put patients in the midst of "an unprecedented crisis", an MLA has warned.
The latest quarterly figures from the Department of Health showed targets were missed in an enormous number of cases.
At least half of patients should wait no longer than nine weeks for a first outpatient appointment.
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However, this target was missed in 75% (203,478) of cases in September.
While no patient is supposed to wait more than a year, this was not so in 73,380 (26.9%) cases. That compares poorly to September last year, when targets were missed 39,557 (16.3%) times.
Waiting times for diagnostic services were also badly affected.
This September some 55,340 patients - around half the total - waited more than nine weeks for a diagnostic test. The ministerial target is 75%. This was also 14,654 more than the same time last year.
No patient should wait more than six months for a test, but 16.6% (18,697) were forced to. That compares to 9.5% (9,675) last year.
Ulster Unionist health spokesman Roy Beggs said the NHS was under huge pressure.
"Never before have so many people been waiting so long for either a diagnosis or treatment," he added.
"The brutal reality is that some of these people have been waiting for so long that they now have a reduced likelihood of a successful outcome."
Mr Beggs said health workers had warned him that patients were coming to serious harm and worse because of the delays.
"The system is broken and the longer this spiral of deteriorating waiting times continues, the harder it will be to fix it," he said.
Calling it "despicable" that parties failed to recognise the gravity of the situation, Mr Beggs singled out Sinn Fein for placing more value on an Irish Language Act than on patients.
"Michelle O'Neill, as a former Health Minister, will know exactly the devastating impact the current impasse is having on patients and their families," he said.
"The fact that she and her party are content to politick ahead of helping people in their hour of greatest need tells us all we need to know about their warped priorities."
Margaret Carr, Cancer Research UK's public affairs manager for Northern Ireland, said the delays in diagnostic tests were unacceptable.
"Waiting to find out if you do or don't have cancer can be an incredibly anxious time and it's unacceptable that some people are having to wait so long for tests," she added.
"There is increasing pressure on diagnostic services in Northern Ireland as more people are being sent for tests.
"A shortage of skilled staff is also contributing to delays."
Ms Carr called for a new cancer strategy, including a review of how diagnostic services are organised and staffed.
Dr Anne Carson, chair of the BMA's Northern Ireland consultants' committee, described the figures as "disappointing but not surprising" and said a shortage of doctors and nurses meant the system was no longer fit for purpose. "Our health system is in urgent need of transformation," she added. "It is essential we have workforce planning that addresses key issues, including the recruitment of medical staff."
While welcoming recent announcements of increased health funding, Dr Carson said money could only do so much for a broken system. "The answer to this is to start the process of transformation described (in the) Bengoa (report) that we have been talking about for so long," she added.
"This is the conversation that our elected representatives need to have sooner rather than later to deliver for patients."